Some Christian marriage conferences and self-help books tell us it's up to the wife to stay looking great and try new things in the bedroom, to keep her husband satisfied and her marriage strong.
Mary DeMuth recently critiqued the popular "smoking hot wife" line, pointing out that for the many Christian wives recovering from experiences of sexual abuse, this kind of imperative makes the difficult path towards healthy intimacy even harder. For a woman trying to find a way to lower defenses, shake off memories, and find true, godly communion with a spouse, being told to act the part of the sexy wife is 11 steps in the wrong direction.
But the real problem with all this evangelical sex talk is even bigger than that. Any woman trying to live intimately with her husband gets damaged by these sorts of claims, not just those who are recovering from abuse. It's antithetical to the Christian view of marriage altogether.
As we remind Christian couples to "stay in shape and try new things," we can play into a broader cultural premise on sex—that it's all right to leave a spouse once the spark of sexual excitement and attraction has dissipated, that couples who don't find sex exciting anymore don't, won't, or even shouldn't, stay together. An adventurous sex life becomes the unspoken requirement for lifelong monogamy.
Once that idea gets in a woman's head, it's hard to shake it. In the back of her mind, she knows the choice to have children also means changing her body forever. Her shape will become different. The sex will be different. Amid the vulnerability of pregnancy and childbirth, women face the fear of becoming less attractive to their husbands, who are meant to find them sexy for years and years to come if they want their marriage to last.
In other cultures, motherhood is seen as the self-sacrificial, dangerous, and difficult role that endears a wife to her husband, solidifies the family unit and elevates her. This used to be the story in America too, but the more we buy into this cultural mandate, the more pregnancy comes with baggage. Motherhood, with its extra stress and pounds, can begin to lessen a woman's esteem, making her seem less valuable to her husband, and putting her at risk of being left behind if he chooses to move on. Forget about the veneration of motherhood, having babies makes you look frumpy in lingerie.
Even more, the stay-sexy-or-else message ultimately admits that marriage may be a conditional arrangement. The bottom line: Your husband can leave at any time… unless you give him a reason to stay. What effect will this even tacit admission have on the relationship? I think of Anna Karenina. As the story progresses, no amount of sensual passion and no amount of beauty can act as cement in Anna and Vronsky's relationship. All the pleasures of beauty and sensuality become tainted.
Anna must remain beautiful to retain Vronsky, and this knowledge poisons all of her beauty in her own eyes. Making herself beautiful in order to please her lover made her happy, but making herself beautiful in order to keep him makes her miserable. The same will be true of any wife who takes these ultimatums to heart. There can be no free offering of beauty or pleasure if beauty and pleasure are required as a payment for a husband's love and fidelity.
Furthermore, once Christians admit that a husband's departure is, if not excused, at least explained by his wife's mommy hips, why should we stop there? What about her tendency to be embarrassing in social situations? Her struggle with anxiety and depression? Her terrible habit of talking while the football game is on?
A culture of conditional commitment can admit of any number of excuses to cut and run, so that now a wife (or a husband, for that matter) needs to worry about more than being fit and slim. Now she has to worry about nagging too much, expressing too many doubts, exposing too many of her personal foibles, for fear of driving her husband away. One of the best, and hardest, elements of marriage is that it brings everything, good and bad, into the light. The moment that relationship becomes conditional, the freedom to be honest evaporates. Marriage becomes just like any other relationship, with each member carefully calculating which parts of herself she can be honest about, and which must remain hidden.
Finally, locating the key to long-lasting marital happiness in a sexy bedroom life ultimately relegates happy marriage to the domain of the young. Our society's cult of youth would have us believe that all the things worth doing are done by young people. But there are ways to be happy in marriage that extend far beyond that short list of pleasures. Why would a husband choose to stay with a wife who has gained 50 pounds since her wedding day? Well, perhaps because he likes her. Perhaps because she challenges him and loves him, encourages him in his walk with God and makes him laugh. Perhaps 30 years of life together has made her indispensable to him in his spirit, so much so that he couldn't possibly care less whether she is titillating to his body.
All this is not to say that women shouldn't care for their bodies, or that men should not find their wives beautiful. Instead, we find that when beauty is a gift a wife offers to her husband freely, it is a source of joy for both of them. But if we treat fitness as a requirement, as a condition for being a good wife, we strip this good gift of its power. We replace the satisfaction a woman gets from being pleasing to her husband with a fear what will happen if she can't keep her body that way. Only a woman who feels that she will be loved utterly without condition can rejoice fully with her husband in the gift she makes of her body and herself.
Janelle Aijian is a regular contributor at the Scriptorium blog. She teaches great texts for the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, where she studies doubt and skepticism in the Christian life through the work of Pascal. She lives in Fullerton with her husband Phillip and Cleo, their cat.
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